I am a retired professor from the psychology department at the University of Hawaii, a former department chair and Director of Clinical Studies, and a past president of both the Hawaii Psychological Association and the Hawaii Academy of Science. When I was introduced to the concept of mindfulness a year or so ago I was amazed to find that in recent years there has been an increasing focus on mindfulness training as a psychological tool, and I became interested in the current status of mindfulness in psychological thought and practice. What particularly peaked my interest as a research psychologist was the discovery that there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that mindfulness practices can be effective in treating various clinical disorders. This is particularly important, since the field of clinical psychology is committed to an evidence-based practice model.
Before summarizing some of the basic findings, it is important to understand that, as viewed by the psychological community, there is nothing inherently religious or spiritual about the practice of mindfulness. Rather, it is being employed independent of any religious or cultural context, seen as a possible useful and functional technique.
In 2013, a comprehensive meta-analysis was published in the Clinical Psychology Review, summarizing 209 studies involving over 12,000 participants with a variety of disorders, looking at the effects of mindfulness practice on measures of depression, anxiety, and stress. A moderate effect size for the therapeutic effectiveness of mindfulness practice on these measures was found in both wait-list control studies and in pre-post studies, although the effect size was somewhat smaller when compared to other treatments. A follow-up analysis, commissioned by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, an agency under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found moderate evidence for lessened anxiety, depression, and pain when compared to controls, although there was no evidence that meditation programs were better than other forms of specific therapeutic interventions.
Perhaps the most well-developed therapeutic model based upon mindfulness concepts is Acceptance-Commitment Therapy (ACT), a behavioral therapy developed in the late 1980’s. Research on the effectiveness of this particular therapeutic intervention has paralleled the results found for mindfulness interventions in general, and today ACT is viewed as an empirically validated treatment by the American Psychological Association with “modest research support” for treatment of depression and “strong research support” in treatment of chronic pain management. ACT and other forms of mindfulness-based therapy are being included in the clinical psychology training programs of a growing number of colleges and universities around the country.
In addition to the research evaluating mindfulness training in traditional clinical practice, research is beginning to appear focusing on possible reasons for its effectiveness and for its possible usefulness in other areas of application.